If an Elizabethan had been asked whether he considered the Queen of England a great woman or not, he would undoubtedly have answered “Yes,” and given very good reasons for his answer. It was not for nothing that the English almost worshipped their Queen in “those spacious times of great Elizabeth.” Edmund Spenser, one of the world’s great poets, hymned her as “fayre Elisa” and “the flowre of Virgins”:
me to blaze
Her worthy praise;
Which, in her sexe doth all excell!
Throughout her long reign, courtiers, statesmen, soldiers, and people all united in serving her gladly and to the best of their powers.
Yet she could at times prove herself to be hard, cruel, and vindictive; she was mean, even miserly, when money was wanted for men or ships; she was excessively vain, loved dress and finery, and was often proud almost beyond bearing.
Notwithstanding all her faults, she was the best beloved of all English monarchs because of her never-failing courage and strength of mind, and she made the Crown respected, feared, and loved as no other ruler had done before her, and none other, save Queen Victoria, has reigned as she did in her people’s hearts.
She lived for her country, and her country’s love and admiration were her reward. During her reign the seas were swept clear of foreign foes, and her country took its place in the front rank of Great Powers. Hers was the Golden Age of Literature, of Adventure and Learning, an age of great men and women, a New England.
If an Elizabethan Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep and awakened again at the opening of Victoria’s reign, more than 200 years later, what would he have found? England still a mighty Power, it is true, scarcely yet recovered from the long war against Napoleon, with Nelson and Wellington enthroned as the national heroes. But the times were bad in many ways, for it was “a time of ugliness: ugly religion, ugly law, ugly relations between rich and poor, ugly clothes, ugly furniture.”
The England of that day, it must be remembered, was the England described so faithfully in Charles Dickens’ early works. It was far from being the England we know now. In 1836 appeared the first number of Mr Pickwick’s travels. The Pickwick Papers is not a great work of humour merely, for in its pages we see England and the early Victorians—a strange country to us—in which they lived.
It is an England of old inns and stagecoaches, where “manners and roads were very rough”; where men were still cast into prison for debt and lived and died there; where the execution of a criminal still took place in public; where little children of tender years were condemned to work in the depths of coal-pits, and amid the clang and roar of machinery. It was a hard, cruel age. No longer did the people look up to and reverence their monarch as their leader. England had yet to pass through a long and bitter period of ‘strife and stress,’ of war between rich and poor, of many and bewildering changes. The introduction of coal, steam, and mechanism was rapidly changing the character of the whole country. The revenue had grown from about 19,000,000 pounds in 1792 to 105,000,000 pounds in 1815, and there seemed to be no limit to the national wealth and resources.